It’s official: Memphis head coach Josh Pastner is an elite recruiter.
Not that there was much doubt heading into this summer. His first recruiting class (the Class of 2010) with the Tigers included three five-star recruits and two four-star recruits. He landed three kids from Memphis (Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Tarik Black), a top ten player from Baltimore (Will Barton) and a McDonald’s all-american from Georgia (Jelan Kendrick). He brought in another five-star Memphis native (Adonis Thomas) in 2011, and followed that up by landing Shaquille Goodwin, Damien Wilson and Geron Johnson this year while managing to convince both Jackson (transfer) and Thomas (NBA Draft) to stay at Memphis.
His 2013 recruiting class could end up being the most impressive of his tenure. As of now, he has four top 100 recruits in line to enroll at Memphis next fall — Nick King, Markel Crawford, RaShawn Powell and Kuran Iverson, a skilled, 6-foot-9 small forward from Connecticut that ranks in the top 30 nationally and committed on Tuesday.
King and Crawford are from Memphis, Powell is from Florida and Iverson is from up in Big East country, which means that not only is Pastner able to tap into the faucet of talent in his own backyard, he’s now proving he can go and get players on a national scale.
So where are the wins?
That 75-29 overall record is nice until you consider that it has come during a stretch where Memphis should be far and away the best basketball program in Conference USA. John Calipari had more than half that many in the 2008 season that was wiped off the books. He also went his final three years with the Tigers without losing a conference game. Pastner is 36-12 in his first three years with one league title and a pair of tournament titles.
Again, that’s good, but given the talent he has at his disposal and the talent level of Conference USA, I think it’s fair to say those results are somewhere in the ‘mediocre to solid’ range.
The number that is more frustrating to Memphis fans is zero. As in, the number of NCAA tournament wins Pastner has in his first two seasons with the Tigers. There are plenty of programs and coaches that would be ecstatic with two straight NCAA tournament appearances. No one in Memphis things they fall under that umbrella.
Criticism of Pastner’s coaching ability is fair. But there are a couple things that need to be kept in mind before doing so:
– He’s young: Pastner took over this program as a 32 year old first-time head coach. The same way that a hot-shot, rookie point guard needs time to learn how to run an NBA team, Pastner needs time to develop his ability to coach a team. In-game adjustments, perfecting a system, game-planning, motivational pregame speeches, everything. Pastner’s been training himself to be a head coach since he was a walk-on on Arizona’s 1997 national title team, but “training” and “doing” are two different things. This may be the last year where it’s ok to say that he deserves the benefit of the doubt, but … Pastner still deserves the benefit of the doubt.
– He didn’t start with much: The Tigers were an NIT team in Pastner’s first season, but where would they have been without Eliot Williams? If you’ve forgotten, Williams transferred out of Duke and was granted immediate eligibility at Memphis due to a health issue of a family member. He was a first round pick that averaged 17.9 points and 3.8 assists. Without him, do the Tigers make the postseason? With Wesley Witherspoon, Roburt Sallie, Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp? I’m not so sure.
– He’s getting better: In 2010-2011, Pastner had a team full of 18 and 19 year-olds playing for their hometown team in city that idolizes high school and college hoopers. Getting that group to come together and make a run through the league tournament and earn an at-large bid — they finished fourth in regular season play — was impressive. What was more impressive was what he did with last season’s Memphis team. After 11 games, the Tigers were 6-5 and coming off of a hideous performance against Georgetown in Washington DC. I wrote this about them at that point. There were Memphis fans calling for Pastner’s job. And all they did the rest of the year was win 20 of their last 23 games and head into the NCAA tournament as a trendy sleeper pick to make a run.
– Those tournament losses were bad breaks: Down by two with five seconds left in the game, Wesley Witherspoon had his shot blocked by Derrick Williams on a play that very easily could have been called a foul. That’s how close the Tigers were to going to overtime. In the 2012 tournament, Memphis caught a terrible break by drawing an eight seed and getting matched up with a very good St. Louis team that matched up with the Tigers perfectly. Bad luck is not an excuse, but eventually Memphis will catch a break.
Memphis has a veteran group this season with a head coach that is coming into his own. So be patient, Memphis fans. You’re in good hands as your team makes the transition to the Big East. And given the way that last season ended, you may not even need to wait until you make that jump for your NCAA tournament run.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.